Ex-head of AIB Gillian Thompson takes over Judicial watchdog role from the popular Moi Ali. SCOTLAND’S ‘powerless’ judicial watchdog charged with reviewing complaints against judges has a new head – Gillian Thompson OBE, appointment to the role of Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) last week by Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill.
However, the appointment comes without any strengthening of powers for the role – described as “Window Dressing” by Scotland’s first JCR Moi Ali, who revealed to msps last year the Judicial Complaints Reviewer has no statutory powers to hold judges to account.
Scotland’s second JCR, Gillian Thompson is a retired civil servant with a career spanning four decades, during which time she was also Chief Executive of the Accountant in Bankruptcy between 2002 and 2009. As Chief Executive of the AIB, Ms Thompson supervised the regulation of the bankruptcy process including the performance of trustees and commissioners in the exercise of their statutory duties.
And in 2010, Gillian Thompson was asked to investigate irregularities in the Scottish Court Service involving staff failing to declare hospitality and using their court positions for personal profit & private gain - arising mostly from activities involving undeclared links to law firms & lawyers. Ms Thompson’s Report on Hospitality & Gifts in the SCS found court staff were secretly using their positions to financially profit from court activities.
The appointment of Ms Thompson to the office of Judicial Complaints Reviewer under the terms of the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008 – an appointment which requires approval from Scotland’s top judge, comes at a time where questions of the effectiveness of the JCR have brought the office and it’s lack of powers into sharp focus during msps deliberations and public debate on the lack of judicial transparency & accountability.
Judges helped create a watchdog without teeth which ended up as window dressing. During debates at the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee last September, MSPs heard from Moi Ali, Scotland’s first Judicial Complaints Reviewer who described the role of JCR as “mere window dressing”. Moi Ali said the JCR’s office had no powers during an evidence session with msps who are currently investigating increased transparency of the judiciary as called for in Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland's judiciary.
Moi Ali told msps there is “little point” to her role as Scotland’s first ever Judicial Complaints Reviewer because of its lack of teeth. She said: “It’s fair to say because I don’t actually have any powers. There’s no real independent oversight.If you provide oversight without powers, then there’s almost little point to it.”
Answering further questions on the comparison of Scotland’s ‘powerless’ Judicial Complaints Reviewer to the equivalent office in England & Wales, the Office for Judicial Complaints - Moi Ali told MSPs: “It’s hard to say why, if you make a complaint about a judge in England or Wales, the powers available are so much wider compared to what happens in Scotland. Their approach couldn’t be more different in terms of openness.”
In England and Wales, the procedure regarding complaints about judges is very different from Scotland, where the Office for Judicial Complaints has 15 staff and publishes details of upheld complaints. If complainants remain dissatisfied with how their case was handled, they can appeal to the Judicial Appointment and Conduct Ombudsman, headed by Sir John Brigstocke, with 14 staff.
Video footage of Moi Ali’s appearance at the Scottish Parliament and questions from MSPs can be found here :
JCR should have more powers – Moi Ali told Scottish Government. In her second annual report as Judicial Complaints Reviewer, Moi Ali called for the Scottish Government to give more powers to the JCR’s office to deal with errant judges.
Moi Ali said: “I think fundamentally the problem is the legislation. “The way it’s created, it’s about self- regulation so you have judges judging judges’ conduct. There isn’t really an independent element.“I’m presented as the independent element but, without the powers, I can’t be independent. We have the appearance of independent oversight but not the reality.”
In response to calls for greater powers for the JCR, Justice Secertary MacAskill refused to grant any extra powers, and First Minister Alex Salmond supported MacAskill's refusal during questions at FMQ’s by John WIlson MSP at the Scottish Parliament.
Since the hearing at Holyrood last year, media coverage has revealed further cases of questionable judicial conduct and judicial conflicts of interest including a case where Scotland’s top judge was forced to step aside because his own son appeared before him in a court case, reported HERE
New JCR Gillian Thompson reported on irregularities in Scottish Court Service hospitality:
Last year, Diary of Injustice reported on concerns regarding hospitality involving Scottish Court Service employees where Ms Thompson was asked by the Scottish Court Service to investigate reports of irregularities in hospitality given to court staff. The request for the investigation came after the SCS received Freedom of Information requests regarding hospitality in the courts, prompting concerns some staff may have accepted gifts or hospitality but failed to register.
Report said SCS Registers were insufficient, and Court staff involved in private gain fail to declare. Gillian Thompson’s Report on Hospitality & Gifts in the SCS stated the “The information currently captured on the registers is insufficient to provide assurance that staff are using their common sense and considering issues such as conflict of interest.
Ms Thompson went on to recommend the “SCS should revise the Policy on Acceptance of Gifts, Rewards and Hospitality to ensure that it is fit for purpose for all staff, taking account of the various roles performed within SCS. It may also be time to revisit the levels of value for gifts and hospitality.”
The former AIB’s report also revealed court staff were using their positions to earn money privately from their links with lawyers and law firms operating in courts, stating “Several staff raised the issue of sheriff clerks who carry out extrajudicial taxations and private assessments and who personally benefit financially from these activities.”
Ms Thompson’s report roundly condemned this practice, stating: “Not only is it inappropriate in terms of the civil service code requirements for staff who are public servants to be able to receive private gain from their employment it is also highly divisive when other staff see such benefits being derived from simply being in the right post of Auditor of Court within the Sheriff Courts.”
Ms Thompson recommended in her report the “SCS should bring the practice of sheriff clerks profiting privately from their employment by SCS to an end as quickly as possible”.
However, it now appears the practice of SCS employees working on the side continues, indicating the SCS has failed to curtail their staff from operating undeclared and highly profitable private ventures and even limited companies formed with law firms which clearly give rise to concerns of conflict of interest and continuing corruption in Scotland’s courts.
Many of these undeclared money making entities operated by currently serving Scottish Court Service employees are hidden from court scrutiny as SCS staff and clerks have got round the SCS ban by engaging relatives or friends & partners as directors in brazen attempts to avoid declaring interests, earnings and relationships with law firms, some of which are connected to members of the judiciary.
Previous articles on the lack of transparency within Scotland’s judiciary, investigations by Diary of Injustice including reports from the media, and video footage of debates at the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee deliberations on Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland's judiciary can be found here : A Register of Interests for Scotland's Judiciary